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U.S. Hits Russia With Sanctions For Election Meddling; Trump Meets With Ireland's Prime Minister; Trump Speaks After Finally Sanctioning Russia For Meddling; New: Trump Repeats False Claim Of Canada Trade Deficit; Source: Trump Looking To Purge Cabinet "Deadweight" Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 15, 2018 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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[11:00:11]

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there. I'm Brianna Keilar in for Kate Bolduan. We have some big breaking news this morning from Washington. The U.S. is hitting Russia with new sanctions. The Treasury Department calling out five entities and 19 people for interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election and launching cyberattacks.

This announcement comes more than a month after Congressionally mandated deadline for sanctions came and went without the administration implementing them.

I want to get straight now to CNN's senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski. Give us the details -- Michelle.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Brianna. I think the headline here is not just that the U.S. is sanctioning these people, that meddled in the U.S. presidential election, but that the U.S. is finally sanctioning these people.

I mean, this is under a law that was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, several months ago. There was a deadline which they could sanction that. That has already passed, although, the administration has always viewed that as a deadline at which they should begin the process of sanctioning these people, that they had identified in the interim.

So, anyway, this is a number of people, you said, five entities, 19 people, these are people who were named in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's indictment for meddling in the U.S. election that the U.S. is now targeting.

So, this means that their property is frozen. U.S. entities and people can't do business with them. Uncertain how much that will affect them, but the value of this is that you hear U.S. administration officials saying, first of all, yes, these people did try to interfere and did interfere in the U.S. election.

And now we are punishing them for it. You see them named for being Russian trolls, one of the people is one of Putin's top people who funded this Russian troll operation, people who made up fake internet identities.

I mean, the list of sanctions by the Treasury Department gives a little detail on the things that they did and the numbers of people that they reached through this. So, the administration has taken plenty of criticism for taking such a long time to do this.

But now they have done it, and they are saying this is hardly the end. In fact, this is only the beginning of the sanctions that they will levy -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And the other thing of important that has just happened is this joint statement coming from the U.S. and European allies, squarely putting responsibility for this nerve agent attack in the U.K. on a former Russian spy on Russia. Tell us about this.

KOSINSKI: Yes, we heard that very strongly at the U.N. Security Council yesterday from Nikki Kaley. I mean, it was almost surprising to hear her so clearly spell it out that the U.S. does believe that Russia was responsible. And the call, the background call that we heard from administration officials today, they spelled it out as attempted murder.

So, in this joint statement that the U.S. has been brought into, the U.S. -- the use of a military grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.

It is an assault on U.K. sovereignty, and any such use by a state party is a clear violation of the chemical weapons convention and a breach of international law. So, on a number of fronts, we're hearing and seeing these strong statements by the U.S. against Russia.

Of course, you could use the word finally in there a number of times, especially given the kinds of equivocating statements we've heard from the U.S. president himself and it is also worth noting that these administration officials now are saying they're also going to go after Russia for trying to get into the U.S. energy system where there is evidence that they have been in there, they say they have been removed and also for cyberattacks -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Michelle Kosinski, thank you for that. I do want to get reaction now on the Russia side of this story. CNN's Frederik Pleitgen is in Moscow. Frederik, tell us what's going on.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Brianna. Of course, there is no reaction yet from the kremlin. It really has just hit here. However, I can tell you that the kremlin certainly has taken note.

In fact, the fact that the sanctions had been issued was announced on Russian state media before it was even announced by the Treasury Department. So, you can see that they are taking this quite seriously.

There is obviously two things that really stick out in this list of people and entities that have been sanctioned. One is them is Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is an oligarch very close to Vladimir Putin, and his Internet Research Agency, that troll factory, that did so much more damage around the U.S. election than we had previously thought.

He's the key centerpiece of the Mueller indictment that was issued in February where he had sent operatives to the U.S. to try and organize rallies there, to try and gather intelligence there, much more wide- ranging activities than we thought.

[11:05:05] Some of the other people who worked for that Internet Research Agency, the other thing that we need to point out, that's important is that there is also the FSB, Russia's intelligence agency on there, the GRU, the military intelligence agency, and several GRU operatives on that list as well.

Interesting because, of course, we know these entities have been sanctioned in the past and yet you do have high level members of Russia's intelligence community still coming to the U.S. and holding high level talks here.

Again, the Russians will definitely have taken note of this and we're waiting to see what exactly their response is going to be. We do expect that they are going to be quite angry at these new sanctions list that has just been issued -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Fred Pleitgen for us in Moscow, thank you so much. I want to talk more about this with CNN chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, and we have CNN global affairs analyst and former State Department official under President Obama, Tony Blinken.

The key -- one of the key questions obviously is going to be when we do get a chance to hear President Trump speak about this, is he going to be in line with what we're hearing coming out of Treasury, out of this joint statement.

But that aside, Jim, as we just look at its -- on its face, at these sanctions, and at this joint statement what is the significance of this?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I think a couple of things. First, the administration is acknowledging here that Russia meddled in the election. Treasury Department run by President Trump's appointee is issuing these sanctions here.

I would also note that 13 -- all 13 people indicted by Robert Mueller, just a couple of weeks ago, for interfering in the elections, are cited here, 13 -- I should say individuals and agencies or entities rather including that troll farm, the Internet Research Agency. So, a probe --

KEILAR: And the catering company.

SCIUTTO: We say catering, just to be clear, this is a guy who caters to Russian troops, and it also has a bunch of mercenaries. He's more than Putin's chef, a significant figure.

But this is a probe, of course, that the president has dismissed as a witch-hunt and yet his Treasury Department just lifted all of those indictments and plopped them here into the sanctions and sanctioned them openly.

The final thing I would say is, does this work? The U.S. has sanctioned Russia for Crimea, Tony knows this better than me for interference in Ukraine, et cetera. Russia is still in Crimea, still in Ukraine.

The Obama administration previously sanctioned Russia for interfering in the elections. And everyone says Russia is still interfering in U.S. elections as the midterms approach. So, will these sanctions deter Russia? Are they high enough to raise the price? Based on recent experience, doesn't look like it.

KEILAR: What do you think? Actually, hold on just a moment. Let's go to the White House where we can hear President Trump.

LEO VARADKAR, IRISH PRIME MINISTER: Are you going to come visit us soon?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I will. I love it. I have property there. I may never get to see it again, but I will tell.

VARADKAR: Do you play golf?

TRUMP: I do play golf. You play golf, right?

VARADKAR: I don't, but I'm always willing to learn. You can take me for a few rounds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you going to open the border with Ireland?

TRUMP: We have two interesting borders. One is where you are, right? That's going to be interesting to see what happens. It is my great honor to have the very popular prime minister of Ireland with us. And we -- we're having some good talks about trade and about military and about cyber and all of the other things we're talking about.

The relationship is outstanding and only getting better. And it really is a very special group of people, a tremendous number of Irish are living in New York where I grew up and living in the United States and these are truly wonderful people. We love them. And Mr. Prime minister, great to have you. Thank you.

VARADKAR: My pleasure. Thank you for the invitation to be here. Going to be in New York on Saturday.

TRUMP: Good, wow.

VARADKAR: Fifth Avenue.

TRUMP: I would like to do it with you. I don't know --

VARADKAR: Does it pass by Trump Tower?

TRUMP: It does. I used to watch it all the time. You'll there be on Saturday?

VARADKAR: Yes. A lot of my -- a lot of the American side of my family came through New York. All in New Jersey, Florida now. I'll be at the reception later.

TRUMP: That makes sense, and this is the first time in the oval office.

VARADKAR: I was here before as a Congressional intern back in 2000, but they didn't let me into the oval office.

TRUMP: Now we do. You made great progress. Thank you. Thank you for being with us.

VARADKAR: Look forward to talking about --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Inaudible) think Putin is behind it.

TRUMP: It looks like it. I spoke with the prime minister and we are in deep discussions, very sad situation. Certainly, looks like the Russians were behind it. Something that should never, ever happen, and we take it very seriously as I think are many others.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Inaudible).

[11:10:10] TRUMP: Well, the story was very false. They wrote a story about staff changes today that was very false. We made a wonderful change. I think Mike Pompeo will be an incredible secretary of state. We have some wonderful ideas. I've gotten to know a lot of people over the last year.

I've been in Washington for a little more than a year where some people have been here for 30, 40 years. I've gotten to know great people. So, there will always be change but very little. It was a very false story. It was very exaggerated -- a very exaggerated and false story.

But there will always be change and I think you want to see change. And I want to also see different ideas. Larry Kudlow just came in little while ago and I think Larry is going to be outstanding as economic adviser. So, we look forward to it. We'll talk to you about it later. Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, everybody.

KEILAR: You are looking at video from just moments ago of President Trump meeting with the Irish prime minister visiting there in the oval office, just asked about the sanctions, the Treasury Department put out with Russia. There is also a joint statement, of course, coming from the U.S. and European allies.

And Tony Blinken, something that struck me was how he did say it certainly looks like it was Russia behind it, meaning this nerve agent attack against a former Russian spy. But he afforded a lot more of this press availability to talking about answering that question about staff changes than he did about Russia. I wonder what that sort of bodes for how he reacts to all of this Russia stuff as opposed to how the Treasury Department and the White House press office reacts to it.

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Brianna, you know, the president has been dragged kicking and screaming to this moment. On the one hand, you're tempted to say it last with the Treasury Department sanctions, with the very strong statement by Ambassador Haley at the U.N. yesterday.

The entire system is flashing red on Russia. It's meddling in our elections. It's poisoning people around the world. By the way, there are Russian opponents of Putin who died mysteriously in the United States, we should get to the bottom of that too.

That's good. But the fact that the president himself refuses -- is reluctant to give voice to this, he didn't -- he should have raised this at the very top of his statement with the Irish prime minister.

KEILAR: Without being asked.

BLINKEN: Without being asked a question --

KEILAR: That would be customary, right. As we have covered or worked in the White House --

BLINKEN: He didn't address the sanctions either. He addressed the poisoning in the U.K., not the sanctions. So, again, there is this tremendous reluctance. As Jim said earlier, what happened today with Treasury validates the Mueller indictment, which the administration was running away from and of course, the House Committee on Intelligence was trying to run away from.

KEILAR: The Mueller indictment to be clear which concludes although Rod Rosenstein at Justice was very clear to say we're not saying that it affected the election, but that indictment makes clear that the efforts of the Russian-intel backed operation was to put a finger on the scale for President Trump.

Which is something, of course, that the House Intel Committee said that's not actually true, and the actions taken by the very Treasury Department, Jim, validate what the president and what the House Intel Committee has tried to say, no, no, nothing to see here.

SCIUTTO: And even on the basic premise of Russian interference in the election that Russia was responsible the president until very recently would continue to raise questions, saying, well, if it was Russia, could have been someone else, that kind of thing. Now with this Treasury Department sanctioning them, that's, you know, an end beauty that he can no longer express because, you know, it is right here in paper.

KEILAR: And he said it certainly looks like the Russians are behind it. I mean, what was your take -- was that a sort of an at last, is that your response? He's talking about there is an at last or too little, too late? Is that enough? Is this in line with what you're seeing in this joint statement?

SCIUTTO: No. I mean, if you've seen the statements via twitter and public of European Union leaders on what happened in the U.K., I mean, it is unambiguous, strong, stern language saying we cannot tolerate this.

You know, Churchillian saying this will not stand. Trump did say, you know, I believe that they did it, I take the U.K.'s word. Is it to the level that you see in there? No. Tony knows the importance of the language and diplomacy better than me.

BLINKEN: You would think that when our closest ally suffers an attack on its own soil, and, by the way, not only were the Russian spy and his daughter victimized, but apparently a number of British citizens were as well, came into contact with this poison.

You would think that the very first thing you would do from the lips of the president of the United States would be to express total solidarity. And unfortunately, we haven't seen that. Again, the rest of the system is doing what it is supposed to do, but not the president.

KEILAR: And we'll see if that's enough. Jim, thank you so much. Tony, we'll have you stick around to discuss some more issues with us in just a moment.

[11:15:00] Also breaking this morning, President Trump falsely claiming that the United States has a trade deficit with Canada, very easily verifiable thing. This comes after reporting that Trump admitted to lying about the issue in a meeting with Canada's prime minister. Stay with us.

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KEILAR: President Trump offering a remarkable admission that he made up facts in a meeting with another head of state. CNN has confirmed "The Washington Post" report that the president boasted of his meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a close U.S. ally.

He bluffed that the U.S. has a trade deficit with Canada. It does not have a trade deficit with Canada. Just a short time ago, the president repeated his claims. He said this, we do have a trade deficit with Canada as we do with almost all countries, some of them massive.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, a very good guy, doesn't like saying that Canada has a surplus versus the U.S., negotiating, but they do, they almost all do, and that's how I know. Here's the thing. That's simply not true.

[11:20:06] According to the official numbers from the Commerce Department, the Trump administration Commerce Department, the U.S. ran a $2.7 billion trade surplus with Canada last year. CNN's Abby Phillip at the White House for us. Take us inside of this fundraiser -- Abby. ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Brianna. It seems very much that President Trump does not want to let go of this talking point, even though as you just demonstrated, it is untrue. It is false.

But the president last night in a jovial mood at a fundraiser repeated this story almost jokingly talking about how he didn't actually know the answer to the question essentially. He didn't know whether the U.S. had a surplus or a deficit, but he insisted that the U.S. had a deficit because he believes that the U.S. has a deficit with almost all countries as he just pointed in that tweet.

And despite being confronted by Trudeau repeatedly who said no, there is a surplus, the president insisted, and he sent aides back for -- aides from the United States and aides from Canada to find out the answer.

And when they came back, the president still said essentially -- pushed back saying he still doesn't believe it because he didn't believe that it included exports like lumber and oil. That's not true. That number includes lumber and oil, and it does not -- it does not show a deficit at all.

But President Trump here indicating how far he's willing to go to push his new trade message and clearly, Brianna, Larry Kudlow, the new National Economic Council director is going to have his work cut out for him, showing the president where we stand on trade with our closest allies in Canada.

KEILAR: And Abby, the president also raised some eyebrows because he said something about South Korea. Tell us about that.

PHILLIP: Yes, well, the president continued to really go after U.S. allies on the issue of trade. South Korea, Japan, the European Union, he's accusing South Korea in particular of ripping the United States off.

He also brought in the security relationship between the United States and South Korea. He mentioned the thousands of troops that the U.S. has stationed in South Korea including in the demilitarized zone between the North and the South, a long-standing security arrangement that the United States has had with that country.

And he suggested that we'll see what happens with that in part because he calls -- he characterized it as being expensive, perhaps too expensive because the United States' trade deficit with South Korea.

The president here is clearly very angry about the standing that the United States is in with trade, with some of these countries including Japan. He talked about the Japanese exports of cars. The president wants to change the situation and he's willing to use all of the levers available to him to do it.

KEILAR: Abby Phillip at the White House, thank you. Joining me now, we have CNN political director, David Chalian, and back with us, CNN global affairs analyst, Tony Blinken. OK, so David, let's just be clear about this. The president makes up a trade deficit and then insists it exists when it doesn't to the prime minister of Canada, then he publicly reasserts this bogus claim. And then he admits to donors that he was making it up.

And while he had this meeting with the prime minister, he talks about how he sent someone out to verify the facts. They sort of came back with the way for him to be right, and it just occurred to me that, you know what is this like? I wondered, it is like painting the roses red.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Exactly. I do think you get to the heart of what is so revealing about Donald Trump's character in this episode, right. So, forget the facts that he's just wrong about the deficit and the surplus for a moment. What he told the donors last night, and again, he thought this was a private setting, but you know, got out --

KEILAR: Never private, that's what we know. It's never private.

CHALIAN: And the president knows that, but it is so regulatory. He says it -- admits fully I didn't know what I was saying if it was true or not. I did not have the facts with me. I just made up a thing that I wanted to go and prove my point from a bullying bulldozer kind of I'm going to show Trudeau what I really think is the issue here.

Facts be damned. He was saying that that's exactly what he did. He wasn't trying to deny that in any way. He was actually boasting about the fact. If you read the art of the deal and look at the way he conducts business deals and has done this throughout his career, it fits entirely with his personality.

And so, I just thought last night was this unbelievably revelatory moment that the president really allowed America to get yet more insight into his character and how he behaves.

KEILAR: But why is that -- I think it is not a partisan issue, but that approach to dealing with facts, there is a lot of bipartisan belief that that is incredibly problematic.

[11:25:02] BLINKEN: Yes. This matters, I mean, it is easy to make light of it. But we basically go on from the first president of the United States, who couldn't tell a lie, to the current president who can't seem to tell the truth about anything. Credibility is the most valuable currency a president has especially on the international stage, and the president is going bankrupt when it comes to that currency.

KEILAR: So, what do you do if you're Justin Trudeau or another foreign leader who has to sit down, who wants to be able to listen to the president and take what he says to the bank when someone communicates like this.

BLINKEN: Look, it is very, very tough because you discount everything he says. You are going to check it twice, three times, don't know whether you can rely on it. The reason it matters is this. You know, especially at crunch time, if there is a crisis, you want your partners to believe that you're telling the truth.

They may doubt your judgment, but they can't doubt your word. Famous story in the 1960s during the human missile crisis, President Kennedy sent emissaries around the world to convince them that the Russians, the Soviets had put missiles with nuclear weapons on Cuba and he wanted to get their support.

Famously he sent a former secretary of state to Paris and said to Degal, I've been authorized by President Kennedy to show you the top- secret satellite photographs to prove to you that these missiles are in Cuba. Degal said, that's not necessary. If President Kennedy says it, I believe it. Can you imagine that conversation happening now?

CHALIAN: And the other really detrimental piece to this, of course, you can't solve the big problems without some sort of agreement about what the facts are, right. As Tony was saying, you can disagree about the judgment, calls that have to be made on one side or the other.

But you can't actually come to solutions of the biggest crises facing us if we don't have an agreed upon set of facts and that just seems to be lost on this administration and this president.

KEILAR: It's very good point. David Chalian, Tony Blinken, thank you so much to both of you.

Also, at the White House, beleaguered staffers are bracing for a possible purge of the cabinet. The very group that President Trump once called the finest group of people ever assembled. And right now, on Capitol Hill, three cabinet members are testifying in separate hearings. Rick Perry may be the only one of them who has job security.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House for us. Jeff, what are sources saying to you about a possible shake-up?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, that has been the question really hanging over Washington, certainly here at the White House and across the agencies of government. Who is next to fall? The president clearly in a firing mood, earlier this week with the abrupt dismissal of a secretary of state.

Advisers yesterday were saying that there is still a large shake-up to be expected. The president himself, the other day, said he's nearing having his preferred choices in his own cabinet. But also, just a few moments ago in the oval office, the president was meeting with the prime minister of Ireland, he was asked by a reporter specifically about this staff shake-up.

The president seemed to say, no, there is not much of a shake-up coming. He said this, he said there will always be change, but he went on to suggest all of these stories are not true. We know we have heard that before.

You'll remember a couple of months ago, when a lot of the reporting was coming out about the secretary of states' future and he was on the verge of being pushed aside for Mike Pompeo, the president said that's fake news, that's not true. Of course, this week that's exactly what happened.

So, Brianna, we do know that several advisers are on edge. The first and foremost cabinet secretary in the crosshairs the most directly appears to be the Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. He was on Capitol Hill as you mentioned.

He says he has deep regret for what has happened in his agency. So, we will see if he is able to hold on, also we are keeping an eye on the National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. He has been at odds with the president on some aspects of foreign policy.

The president has been looking for a possible change there. We'll see if that happens this week, Brianna. But of course, as always, this is the president's decision to make, more importantly the timing is his alone to make. We don't expect anything in the next coming hours unless the president wants to directly contradict himself -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you.

Coming up, Trump Attorney Michael Cohen says he acted alone when he paid porn star, Stormy Daniels, $130,000 amid reports that she had an affair with Donald Trump. So, why is another Trump Organization attorney getting involved? Details ahead.

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